Title: Big Damn Head Cold

Author: tarotgal

Fandom: Firefly (set near the end of the series or directly after the series)

Spoilers: er, for the general series/characters only

Disclaimer: Joss is da man. I'm only borrowing. I make no money and have only fun.

Rating: PG-13

Bunnies: 1, 4

Summary: Mal has a job and a… well, you can read the title, can't you?

Notes: I'm petrified! It's my very first attempt in this fandom and given its fan following, I'm terrified of writing anything, let alone this. Please please please be kind if you have constructive feedback about me completely botching it up. I'd love to hear if you liked any of it, too. I got to the point where I was going back to this story fifty times a day to edit or tweak or fuss, so I decided just to let it go and hopefully I haven't embarrassed myself too much. And I ain't gonna translate the Chinese 'cause I'm lazy, dong-ma?



            'Far as I'm concerned, whoever came up with the idea for long underwear deserves a gorram Medal of Honor,' Mal thought to himself as he pulled on a pair of long johns followed by a pair of wool socks. He felt so miserable he didn't even notice the way the thick socks scratched his skin and made him itch.


            Serenity's captain had been shot, stabbed, cut, bruised, beaten, bled, run straight through, and tortured- all more times than he would have liked- so a little head cold was hardly a concern. Except this wasn't a normal little head cold. Not little any way you looked at it. Mal's head came just short of splitting open. Mighty annoying, too, since if it had been opened, he might have lost some of the stuffiness and heaviness he felt in it along with the intense pain. His throat didn't just hurt; it burned. His nose wasn't just sniffly; it ran relentlessly. There were chills and aches and sneezes and coughs and at this point he would have been happier with a gunshot to the belly.


            Of course, maybe he would manage to acquire one of those, too. They were scheduled to land within a day on Osmerea to pick up some cargo. Wasn't supposed to be a tough haul, it was just that no one in his right mind ever wanted to visit Osmerea, and especially the parts of it covered by polar icecaps.


            Mal shivered slightly as he pulled on brown pants and a blue shirt over his long underwear. The straps of his suspenders hung down against his legs, and he left them there as he doubled right in half, coughing into his fist. Sound didn't travel beyond his cabin, so he took advantage and let loose with the uncomfortable hacking until the fit worked through his system.


            He wasn't going to last a second on Osmerea like this, Mal had decided a good hour ago, when it was clear his cold was getting worse, not better. He had spent most of the night and all of the morning tossing and turning in his bed, sweating through blankets and shivering under sheets. He had spent mid-day curled up, coughing his lungs out and sneezing his nose off. It had taken him an hour to make himself get up and another twenty to get dressed. Mal moved in slow motion, with every action carefully carried out despite the hindrances of handkerchiefs held to his face and thumping pains slicing through his skull.


            His nose was tender and he could see his illness at a glance in the mirror. However, if he was real quick and careful, he might be able to make his way through the ship without anyone else so much as noticing. Mal slid a relatively clean 'kerchief up his sleeve, military-style, a leftover habit though a good way to carry it without creating an obvious bulge in his britches.


            But as soon as it was concealed, he felt he needed it in hand again. He pulled it out and pressed it to his nose. A wince couldn't be helped; his whole nose hurt from sneezing so much and the handkerchief was a little cool and damp from its last use. His breath hitched almost silently, but the sneeze was anything but. “Ehptchahhh!” It brought friends, too. “Heh-EhChuhhh! EhhKTchuhh! Uhhh…” Mal leaned against the wall, his warm forehead pressed against the metal interior of the firefly. He turned his head slightly to give his quarters a longing look.


            If only he could stay in bed for the next day, the next week, hell, the next month even, it would almost be worth letting the others know. Almost. Cause he wouldn't have them fussing, and he knew they would, especially the womenfolk. And they'd never manage the Osmerea raid without him. They needed him, and he wouldn't let them down or let them risk their lives while he stayed nice and toasty in his bunk. So it was better just to suck it up and get to the infirmary for a little doctoring.


            Mal wiped the 'kerchief one way across his nose then back again in the other direction before stuffing it up his sleeve and heading up the ladder out of his cabin. He emerged in the fore passage and took a quick survey of his surroundings.


            To his right was the cockpit. Just now, Wash sat in the pilot seat and Zoe sat on his lap, facing him. She leaned against part of a control panel, which was locked for safety- good thing, too. Their arms were wrapped around each other. Their clothes were in various states of disarray. Their lips were locked together without break. And when she knocked one of Wash's dinosaurs off onto the floor, neither of them batted an eyelash at it. The evil Tyrannosaurus stayed put as the chair reclined slightly and Wash moaned. Mal had a feeling he could sneeze his head off about now and they wouldn't even notice. However, he didn't much want to test that hunch.


            To his immediate left was the dining area. The shepherd sat there now, picking at a plate of something that didn't look remotely appetizing. Book was reading his somewhat damaged copy of the Good Book, as though for the first time. He looked almost as engrossed as Wash and Zoe, but Mal still wasn't likely to let himself sneeze. He wouldn't look too fondly on a blessing of any kind right now.


            His nose took issue with this and tickled. So he lifted his hand and scrubbed a tickle out of it with the base of his palm. It only brought about half the relief he needed, but half was enough to be getting on with.


            Further on past the dining area was the engine room, where Kaylee was just visible, going back and forth past the doorway. If she were really in tune with the ship, there was no way she would notice him, but she might just hear and be in the right mind to come exploring. He loved the girl, really he did, but he wasn't in the mood for her cheerfulness when he felt so gorram miserable. It was better if the mechanic remained in the engine room.


            In fact, it was better if he avoided the whole upper part of the ship altogether. He wasn't sure the lower part would be much better, but he took the stairs down to the cargo bay anyway.


            At first, the only risk seemed to be Jayne, who was down below on the floor, doing push-ups beside the weight-lifting bench. Mal watched the man's body move up and down and listened to the counting. For every one push-up he performed, his count seemed to increase by some arbitrary number. In about twenty seconds, he managed about a hundred and fifty push-ups, if you were trusting him. Not that anyone ever trusted Jayne further than they could throw him. 


            The cargo bay was enormous, and his footsteps sounded loud on the metal catwalks that stretched across it. The door leading to Inara's ship was closed, an indication that she was inside and did not wish to be disturbed. Of everyone on board, he wanted her to see him right now the least. Luckily, she was keeping to herself more and more these days and the sound of a sneeze or two now wouldn't reach her.


            Jayne would hear, though. The cargo bay was large enough that the sound would echo loudly and Jayne would give him hell for catching a little sniffle. The only thing that could possibly make him feel worse right now would be Jayne teasing him for feeling sick. And he wouldn't even have the energy to retaliate. So Mal pinched his nose at the bridge, feeling the tickle being cut off prematurely by the pressure. Pretty soon after he let go, though, he'd be regretting this. He moved along quicker.


            He was halfway across now. Jayne was still doing push-ups and all Mal had to do was get the rest of the way and go down the stairs at the far end. His steps sounded louder, somehow, and his breaths seemed faster. The possibility of slipping up was very real and very torturous. But he refused to sneeze even once just now. The release would be far too embarrassing. He pinched more tightly, so much it actually hurt now. But it wasn't far now. He was almost to the stairs and no one was paying him any attention.


            Just when Mal figured he was home free, he noticed a pair of feet followed by lower legs, peeking out from between two large, regrettably empty storage crates. The legs lay right in his way. “River?” he whispered.


            The legs didn't move, but Mal sensed movement and suddenly the girl's eyes were shining at him out of the dark like a wild animal's. This had disaster written all over it, and Mal tried to hurry himself along. He stepped over her legs, glad that she hadn't playfully tried to trip him as he did so.


            But as soon as Mal was two steps away, he heard her laugh and whisper, “Secret-secret. You've got a secret.”


            Immediately, he dropped his hand down, removing all evidence. “That's enough now,” Mal replied. “Now why doncha go find Kaylee and quit hauntin' my bay?” There were a hundred places she could hide herself away on Serenity. Why did she have to pick just this spot just now?


            River shook her head, then cocked it. She leaned forward, so he could see her whole face. “Sneezy,” she said, and a shiver immediately seized his spine. “Undeniable. Irrefutable. Involuntary. Sick and sneezy. And going to sneeze!”


            He wasn't. He wouldn't. He refused to. But he did so need to! He pinched his nose again. It was right there, so close, almost like she was doing it to him, like she was making him sneeze.


            She lay back, talking to herself now. “He's been sneezing all day. Should see Simon.” She laughed again and pinched her own nose. “That isn't going to help for long.”


            He hadn't needed her to tell him that. Mal practically fled from the cargo bay. He tried to look as though he were a single-minded captain on an important task. Mal tried to look busy enough so Jayne wouldn't bother calling after him but not too flustered so the man didn't suspect an emergency.


            Mal didn't know if it worked like that, but he managed to race down the stairs and escape into the infirmary without being called after. He closed the door to the small room behind him and cupped both hands to his mouth, unable to get to his handkerchief out in time. “heh-ehhhhCHUHH! Heh-ehKuhshhhh! Kehtchuhhh!” It wasn't until he was wiping his nose with his hanky that he realized he was alone in the infirmary. Simon was nowhere in sight.


            'Just my luck,' Mal thought, closing his eyes. Now he would be forced to venture back out in search of the doctor. Unless the man was on the move or purposefully hiding, there weren't too many other places he might be. And the very first place to start looking was the passenger room that was now Simon's.


            Frustrated, Mal turned around and found himself staring right into Simon's eyes through the window in the door. Grateful, Mal relaxed and yanked the door open in haste.


            “Is there a reason you locked me out of my own infirmary, Captain?”


            “A captain can't just pay his medic a friendly visit?” Mal replied, quickly tucking his handkerchief away, embarrassed that he had been holding onto it for so long.


            “I suppose so,” said Simon, looking the man over with a critical eye. “Except that in all the time I've been on your ship, you never have. I can't help but think you aren't doing so this time, either. So what's the matter?”


            Mal looked hesitantly towards the door. It wouldn't be so hard to get back to his quarters. He could brush Simon off and go lie down even now. “Don't pay me no mind. I'm leavin',” he said.


            “You can confide in me,” said Simon.


            But Mal shook his head. This was a bad idea. “You don't understand.”


            Simon stood between Mal and the exit, arms crossed over his chest. “I think I understand well enough. You don't want your crew seeing their captain looking weak. But you wouldn't be here if you could handle this yourself. So start telling me the truth or this is going to be one long afternoon. Dong-ma?”


            Mal knew which one of them would win a waiting contest. His nose was already tickling. So he rubbed his finger under his nose as he muttered. “Truth is, I ain't felt so good since yesterday. I need some lookin' at, Doc. Think I've got myself a cold.”


            Simon nodded and locked the door to the infirmary. He pulled the shades down over the window to be discrete and Mal was much obliged. “All right. Hop up, untuck your shirt, and let me care for you.”  He gestured to the bed in the middle of the room that was laid out straight like an examination table. As Mal got into place, Simon scrubbed his hands in the sink. “Please enumerate your symptoms for me.” He dried his hands and caught Mal's slightly annoyed look. “Tell me what's bothering you.”


            Mal rubbed the back of his neck and looked down. “Yeah. Guess it's my nose, mostly.”


            “Yes?” Simon frowned. He stood in front of Mal with a look that said he expected more.


            Remembering how River had put it, Mal said, “Been sneezing all day, really. And with the job tomorrow, I can't afford to have so much as a gorram sniffle.”


            Simon nodded thoughtfully. He slipped the end of a stethoscope under Mal's shirt then gave a start, surprised at what he found. Mal smiled sheepishly and pulled off his shirt then slipped the top half of the long underwear off. “Breathe deeply for me.” Mal did, and Simon listened. They repeated the action until Simon took off the stethoscope. “I've heard about Osmerea. Nothing but ice and snow?”


            “Ice and snow and-” Mal held up one finger “Fifty metric tons of shiny goodies waiting for a… a fine ship like…this…” He rubbed his finger under his nose, nostrils twitching and brow furrowing. “Dung ee hwar...” Hastily, he withdrew his handkerchief. “H'Kshhh! Hah-IHShhhh!”  Mal massaged his nose through the folds of his handkerchief. Then he tried to pretend neither of them had seen. He kept the 'kerchief out, though, in case he had need for it again before long. “Osmerea was one of the first teraforming experiments… gone wrong. It was too far out to bother correcting and there are farms 'round the middle where glacial ice is extracted for water. Almost fit for life in those there parts.”


            “But not where we're going?”


            “Right. Where we're headed is all ice and snow.”


            “And goodies.”


            Mal grinned. “Now you're getting' it. Sniff!” He rubbed at his nose. “Aiya! Hehh-hehKShehhhh! Hah'Chuhhh! KehTchufffff!” He nuzzled his way deep into his handkerchief, folded the thing, then rubbed again. He cleared his throat and tried to pick up where he'd left off.  “The job might be a bit dangerous.” Nothing so bad as a ship full of Reavers, but certainly not a stroll in the park. “So I gotta be on my game. Think you can get me there, Doctor Tam?”


            “I shall do my best, Captain Reynolds.” Simon's usually flat, clinical tone was strangely comforting to Mal. Not used to things being comforting, he quickly blew his nose until misery overtook him again. “So, just some sneezing is all?” Simon picked up a small instrument and stuck the tip in Mal's ear. He took a look at Mal's throat and eyes next.


            Mal shrugged and rubbed at his nose. Then he sighed and blurted out, “Aches-and-chills-and-sore-throat-and-runny-nose-and-coughs-and-congestion-and-headache… especially the headache.” He pressed the base of his palm to his forehead. “Feels like I'm 'bout to die.”


            “I can give you some acetylsalicylic acid right now.”


            “Acid?” Oh, he didn't like the sound of that. Mal eyed the door.


            “Aspirin,” he explained kindly.


            Mal frowned. “Can't you just give me a shot? The last time I had a cold, a shot took care of it right quick.”


            “I'm afraid it's not quite so easy,” Simon told him. “You appear to have a rather tenacious rhinovirus.” 


            Mal rubbed his nose again. The pitch of his voice was a little higher with panic. “Thought it was a cold.”


            “Same thing. But I'm afraid that there are millions of different cold viruses, and I will need to discover which you have before I can determine which shot to administer.”


            “Oh. Sniff! So what do you need?”          


            Simon reached over and plucked the handkerchief out of Mal's hand. “This will do.” He replaced it with what Mal assumed was another handkerchief, though he barely recognized the animal. Instead of the off-color, ragged, and well-used it was bright white, crisp, and clean. When Mal pressed it to his nostrils, it was like the angels themselves were singing its praises. “This could take some time so you might as well get a little sleep here.”


            “Easier said than done. I can't sleep.” Simon looked concerned. “Tried a buncha times. Haven't been able to sleep a wink. Kinda tough when you sneeze every five minutes, dong-ma?”


            Simon nodded with understanding, turned away, then he turned back with a pill on the palm of one hand and a glass of water in another. “Take this. By the time you finish the water, you will fall asleep, sneezes or not.”


            Mal was as doubtful as could be, but a little pill never hurt no one. And, sure enough as the ship was still in the sky, by the time he'd drained the cup, Mal couldn't keep his eyes open any longer. He toppled over sideways onto the bed. His head hit something soft and something equally soft but warm was suddenly laid over him. Mal's head felt foggy, stuffy, but he managed to take note of the pillow and blanket, kind of snuggling into them both. He wanted to say something; wasn't everyday he had a little kindness paid to him. He wanted to rub his nose; wasn't often lately that the tickle in it was so light and easy to get rid of. He wanted to tell Simon he didn't need the doctor's reassuring pats on his arm; wasn't the truth, though. All Mal could do was fall asleep.


            As he did so, Mal had the strange feeling that the doctor could have stuck any old shot into him to get rid of his cold but that he would get better faster with a little sleep under his belt. Considering his plan for tomorrow, it was probably for the best. If he woke up feeling well and refreshed and Tams were the only ones the wiser, well, Mal supposed he could live with that.




            “How long was I asleep for?” Mal asked, rolling his sleeve down all the way to cover the beige long underwear beneath. His arm still smarted from the shot and his nose was still a little tender, but otherwise Mal felt great. He felt better than great, even. He felt like… hauling crates out of a frozen tundra. He hopped down off the bed and stretched.


            “Roughly nine hours.”


            Mal froze to hear the answer to his question, his arms straight up in the air. He looked over his shoulder, his face screwed up with confusion and panic. 'Nine hours? Really? Nine gorram hours?'


            Simon couldn't read his mind, but did not need to. Mal's face said it all. “No one came looking for you. I mentioned passing you earlier and you supposedly told me you'd be busy in your quarters and didn't want to be disturbed. And the whole ship's asleep now so it's a good time for you to sneak back to your quarters, if you like.”


             “Thanks, Doc.” Mal still felt only cautiously optimistic.


            Once again, however, Simon had been truthful. When most of the ship sat down together around breakfast to discuss the job, no one even brought up his absence. Of course, the fact that they were finishing off the eggs in a protein bar and egg scramble kept their mouths and minds on their meals.


            “Okay. Listen up,” Mal said, draining his cup and thinking how nice it was to be able to taste again. “We've only got an hour out there 'fore our insides freeze up, but I reckon it won't take us half that. We land on the closest stable ground we can find, use the meter to go out, open the ice up a bit, hook the crates onto the cable, then head back and let Serenity do the rest.”


            Jayne looked at him with a kind of funny expression. “Stable ground? What's that supposed to mean exactly?”


            Mal nodded. “The crates are about thirty feet down, under some frozen ice. If the ship gets anywhere near, engine's so hot that the ice's liable to melt and we'll all go under.”


            “Oh there's a happy thought to inspire us,” said Zoe.


            “Fahng-sheen,” Wash purred, patting his wife's thigh. “I'll find us somewhere safe to land and get us back up again into the black. The rest…” Mal knew the plan was overly-simple and that sometimes meant trouble.


            “It's just a little gorram ice,” Jayne said, offhandedly. He dug around for something on his person, then strapped on his hat. He pulled the dark orange flaps down over his ears. “How bad could it be?”




            The plan went precisely as planned for all of twenty-three minutes. Mal, Zoe, Jayne, and Kaylee trudged out onto the ice, in that order. Their heavy boots let them move forward against the fierce wind and snow that met them straight on. Everything was white as far as the eye could see, which was only a few yards at a time. Even if his nose were back on the runny side of things, it wouldn't be able to. They had on coats, goggles, hats, scarves, gloves, mittens, and more coats. They could barely move for all their layers, but they had to move. It was a good fifty yards from the ship to the spot where the cargo had been stashed. After a few minutes out in the elements, Mal realized he might as well be naked for all the good his long underwear was doing him now.


             All four of them held tight to a heavy cable they were dragging out from the tail of the firefly. It was so heavy it took three of them to drag it along. Their positions on the cable were staggered, however, so that, if one of them fell through the ice, they wouldn't all meet the same fate. They couldn't risk anything more secure.


            As they neared the spot, a small monitor clipped to Zoe's belt started beeping more rapidly, though the sound was faint and muffled by the raging wind and thick snow. When they were right on top of it, the sound was one long, unending tone until Zoe's patience reached its limit and she switched it off.


            Then Mal let the pack he'd been carrying slide off his back. He didn't even hear it hit the ground, though it only had a couple of feet to fall. Mal had picked up the machine second hand- or perhaps tenth hand- and Kaylee had been tinkering with it for days. But they wouldn't know until they had it in place if it was set up right or not, and that was why little Kaylee was with them out in this blinding, white hell.


            “Mal!” Kaylee screamed over the raging winds, and Mal turned to see her passing Jayne and heading straight for them.


            “Stay back!” he yelled back, holding his hand up. Jayne grabbed her and pulled her back a few yards. Zoe backed up, as well. This thing could make it all go south in the push of a button, and Mal wanted his to be the only hand on that button.


            Mal moved the last leg into place and closed his eyes, hoping for a little luck due him. But when he punched the button, and a sonic wave shot out from the machine, the ice below his feet barely trembled. “Gorram chou ma niao… mei yong-duh,” he muttered under his breath. “Huaile. KAYLEE!”


            Kaylee was fast on her feet, and she turned dials until things locked into place. “Coulda worked it faster if I could move my fingers,” she told him, her mouth at his ear, and he just barely heard. He couldn't see her smile through the bright pink scarf 'round her neck, but he could see it in her eyes. Mal knew that when she got that look about her, she could do no wrong. 


            “Go!” Mal shouted. In his book, the best way to appreciate her was to not get her killed. He waited for her to get a good head start, then he took a deep breath of piercing cold air and slammed his hand down on the button.


            This time, shockwaves penetrated the ice. Everything around them trembled and a sound like a gunshot rang out as the ice cracked open. He had one chance to do this, and it was now or never. Mal slipped his hand out of the loop on the cable, then lowered it down, down, down until the end hit metal and bonded fast. Shiny.


            Mal grabbed the machine as there was no sense in wasting good parts. Then he started back. As the sonic waves continued to resonate underwater, the ice would continue to break up. Then they'd be able to haul the cargo up onto the ship with no problem at all.


            There was a crash and a scream and a yell of pain almost all at once. Mal strained his eyes, trying to look through the snow, and could just make out that one of them had fallen into the ice. He ran. Zoe ran. Kaylee continued to scream. But Jayne was no longer yelling. Not the best of signs, to be sure.


            There were two ways to get Jayne back to the ship. One was to haul him back themselves and the other was to slice the cable off right then and there, attach it to the man, and signal the ship to retract. Of course, that way they'd lose all hope of claiming the cargo.


            Mal made the decision in a flash. He didn't even think about it. He dropped Kaylee's machine and took a running dive towards Jayne. He slid along the ice on his belly, plunged his arms into the ice water, swung them around, and grabbed for the man with all his might. He felt nothing but heavy, frozen water against his arms. One second with his limbs underwater and he couldn't hardly move them any more. They were like dead weights, and his instinct was to pull them right back out again and call for the medic. But his sensibilities kept them underwater, trying to find Jayne. 'Ni ta ma de! Come on! Where are you, you bastard?' Mal thought, desperately. But then his hand struck something- someone- solid and took hold. He pulled with all his might, and bright red and orange suddenly emerged along with the rest of Jayne's head.


            But Mal's arms were suddenly devoid of strength and he couldn't pull any more. Lying there on his stomach, he had no leverage. All he could do was hang on. Jayne's eyes were wide, staring straight at him, pleadingly, though the rest of man's face was blue with cold and the rest of his body was frozen solid.


            “Hold on, Captain. I gotcha!” Mal held onto Jayne while Zoe pulled Mal. Mal shouted for Kaylee to stay away, and Kaylee went at once for Simon. It was slow-going but not altogether impossible. Zoe was strong enough and Mal wouldn't give up now. They dragged Jayne out of the ice, then they dragged Jayne back to the ship twice as fast. Mal's arms burned as though they were on fire instead of frozen.


            Simon was waiting for them in the cargo bay with a stretcher, and they carried Jayne straight through to the infirmary and Simon set to work at once.


            “A hundred years ago, a man would be dead in two minutes from that,” Simon said, rooting through one of the cabinets for what he needed. “However, these days human metabolism--”


            Mal was shuddering with cold, even with the warmers wrapped 'round his bare arms, but he managed to squeeze out a weak, “More of the fixin' and less of the gabbin' if you please, Doc?”




            Jayne's eyes opened, and Mal gave a start. He'd been sitting by Jayne's bedside for so many hours that he'd just about forgotten why he'd been sitting there in the first place. “You're awake,” Mal said, relieved. “And you're going to be all right. Fahng-sheen.”


            Jayne slowly put the pieces together. He winced as though in pain and beckoned Mal to come closer. Mal got up from his chair and leaned over the bed. Jayne lifted his head wearily then grabbed hold of Mal by the collar of the man's button-down shirt. His eyes were aflame. “You was gonna let me die out there!”


            Mal pulled free and took a step back, out of Jayne's reach, just in case. “No,” he said. “I pulled you out, remember?” Jayne continued to glare. “It's a pretty strong accusation. Are you sure about it?”


            Jayne hesitated. “Well…”


            Mal smiled pleasantly. “Believe me, Jayne. When I mean to kill you-” His pleasant demeanor vanished and his tone was deathly serious as he leaned close “-you will be sure.” He straightened back up and smiled as though not a single threat had been made. Jayne stared at him… then smiled right back.


            Simon came in then to take Jayne's vitals. Jayne didn't seem thrilled with this, but he was practically pinned down on the bed and unable to do anything about it.


            Knowing that feeling all too well, Mal tried to distract him. “Now, you'll be pleased to know you're defrosting and that we didn't lose the haul. I know how much you hate losing cargo.”


            This seemed to relax Jayne somewhat. “Shiny. Almost worth it, then.” Jayne paused, then snapped forward with a juicy sneeze. “hahhhh-TChhshhhhhhh!” It was all Mal could do to keep from eyeing the doctor knowingly, though Simon wasn't as good at it and glanced at Mal.


            “Bless you, Jayne.” Simon pressed a clean handkerchief into the man's hand, then felt his forehead for fever.


            “Been fighting a head cold since this morning,” Jayne admitted. “Don't suppose you can do anything for me, Doc, since I'm here anyway?”


            Simon smiled. “Might be something I can do. I'll have to figure out what strain you've got, though. You should probably get some rest in the meantime.”


            Mal stood back and watched as Simon gave Jayne the very same kind of pill he'd been given, that put Jayne in the very same dreamless, restful sleep. It was only as Jayne started snoring that it occurred to Mal that Simon's reaction to Jayne's cold had looked familiar. And though he had a feeling that he wasn't the first one to have come to Simon with a cold, he wasn't going to ask because Simon wasn't going to tell him.


            “Secret.” Mal looked over at the doorway, where River practically floated, looking ethereal and mysterious.


            “Everyone on this boat's got secrets,” Mal said, passing her on the way out and patting River on her shoulder. “And you know 'em all, don't you, Darlin'?”


            River beamed and pinched her nose playfully.


            “But you won't go tellin' those secrets, right?”


            Her hand dropped slightly, so one finger was pressed against her lips in the universal sign of quiet.


            Mal chuckled and headed to the cargo bay to do an inventory of the items in the crates.